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Great Faculties Make Great Schools

by Stephen Hebert on Sunday - 15 November 2009

in Education

Recently, my friend and colleague, Edward Carson, has been posting about finding teaching positions (see “Dear Student Part 1″ and “Dear Student Part 2″) — specifically, Carson is interested in independent/private schools. I like a lot of what Carson has to say here; though, from a race standpoint it is more difficult for me to relate. However, one item where I think we agree is this: great faculties make great schools.1

Now, this is not to say that an excellent faculty is the only key to a school’s success. It is, however, a factor. When a prospective student (and his/her parents) look at a school, they are definitely going to check out the accomplishments and pedigree of the faculty members. To this end, our school, Houston Christian High School, prints the names of each teacher and what schools they attended in the Student Handbook that incoming students receive each year.

In my view, a faculty that is truly great is more than pedigrees and abbreviations and titles. A faculty that is truly great possesses three major characteristics:

  1. Lifelong Learners
  2. Student-centered Attitudes
  3. Dynamism and Diversity

Let’s examine each of these in kind.

Lifelong Learners

Bottom-line: If you aren’t committed to being a lifelong learner, if you aren’t committed to continuing to develop and hone your own academic brain, then teaching in secondary or higher education may not be the place for you.2

Being a lifelong learner, however, extends beyond your particular discipline. A commitment to teaching excellence means that you need to continue to study and understand recent teaching methods.

A friend of mine recently told me about a math teacher at an elite private school in the Southwest. This particular teacher had been on staff at that school for 30 years. His class consisted mostly of him passing out old handouts and worksheets (produced on an old, purple “ditto” machine) and sitting at his desk while his students worked through their assignment.

Travesty! And probably not worth the $20,000/year price tag.

Teachers who are lifelong learners will always be seeking ways to develop their skills. Even if you are fairly set in your ways (I am committed to a discussion style because I know that’s what works best for me), you should still be looking for ways to improve that.

Beyond actual teaching practice, the lifelong learner should be looking to expand his/her understanding and mastery of their subject. It simply will not do to teach the same course the same exact way with the same exact material for years and years and years. Certainly you can get away with it for a few years, but how long before you will be teaching outdated material? The world of academia changes rapidly, and if, on the secondary level, we are truly committed to preparing students for college, then we should be committed to staying in touch with what is being taught at the college level.

As one teaching religion at a college prep school, it would not behoove my students to ignore the multiple source theory that says the Pentateuch was written by J, E, D, and P. Nor would it help my students to ignore debates about which Synoptic Gospel takes priority. Rather, we should welcome those debates and be at the cutting edge of research. Doing so can only foster preparedness and open-minded inquiry from our students. The goal is to create thinkers, not automatons full of outdated information.

I believe strongly that like breeds like. If we are lifelong learners, our students will catch that spirit and fire and become lifelong learners too.

Student-centered Attitudes

In today’s academy, it can become very easy to focus on our careers. Why am I doing what I’m doing? To further my career, of course. However, this attitude can be detrimental to a faculty. A group of teachers comprised largely of career-focused individuals will have difficulty fostering a love of learning in students.

The reality is this: classrooms need to be student-centered. Therefore, classrooms need to be student-centered.

A student-centered attitude can take many different shapes. For example, you could be a Harkness proponent (perhaps the ultimate expression of a student-centered classroom), or a lecturer and still be student-centered. It’s all about attitude.

Even something like Harkness, which relies on student discovery and discussion, can be used for a career-focus. Perhaps you’re a proponent of Harkness because (when used improperly) it allows you to avoid the hassle of lesson planning. The time gained might allow you to work on various committees or research projects, all with the hopes of furthering that career.

In the business of teaching, if we aren’t ultimately about student progress, then we are doing a disservice to those who step into our classrooms. Our focus must be on their learning and their benefit. After all, that’s what we’re paid for, right?

Dynamism and Diversity

Finally, a truly great faculty needs dynamism and diversity. This is where Carson’s aforementioned posts are of particular interest.

The teacher should feel comfortable in his/her surroundings. However, we should realize that comfort is often upset by diversity.

Any teacher should feel free to express his/her views. That’s the sort of comfort I’m talking about. Essentially, the teacher needs to be suited to the school and the school to the teacher. Being comfortable does not inherently mean that everyone agrees. Rather, being comfortable means that there is a sense of mutual respect for all, an atmosphere where opinions are welcome to be shared.

This atmosphere starts with the administration — they develop and shape the culture through policy and hiring.

So, why diversity? My philosophy is this: students should be taught how to think not what to think.

A diverse faculty that represents many different points of view is more likely to create balance and give a student opportunities to choose what they’d like to think.

In my particular school, students take political and religious positions. To be perfectly honest, I’m OK with whatever position they choose so long as they do not feel outside pressure to take that position. I think a balanced faculty representing many different political, religious, and socioeconomic viewpoints will be more inclined to foster that sort of atmosphere for the student, the sort of atmosphere where it’s OK to think “other.”3

What then is dynamism?

The faculty should be a powerful and adaptable force. Faculty members should be forward-looking, progress-minded individuals who understand the school’s current position and can see the way forward. Again, this is in some part reliant upon the administration who have a duty to cast that vision to help the academic departments and individual faculty members see the way forward.

To me, dynamism is made up of two key components:

  1. Seeing the way forward.
  2. Moving the way forward.

To only see the way forward is useless and even detrimental; it builds a grass-is-always-greener attitude.

To only move forward, with no vision, is equally detrimental — where are we going and for what? Who is leading whom?

Wrap-Up

Obviously, the faculty is only one component of the school. Beyond this there is the board, the administration, the students, etc. Perhaps it’s because I’m a faculty member that I see the place of the faculty as so important. Perhaps it’s because I was once a student that I see the need for great teaching and great teachers.

Each member of the school has a part to play. In the long run, is there any group of people more heavily scrutinized by students (and parents) than the faculty? Maybe the administration, but I’m not so sure.

What are your thoughts? What do you think makes a great school? Faculty? Facilities? Leadership? Students? All of the above?

Footnotes

  1. See another of Carson’s posts: “Good to Great.” I’d be interested to learn how his Good to Great meetings are going.
  2. I can’t speak to primary education — it’s not my field. Being a lifelong learner is probably a great idea there.
  3. NB: I work at a Christian school where all faculty members must sign a statement of faith. However, that does not mean that we all believe the same things. We might have differing views on church polity, denominationalism, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, etc. In a Christian environment, that difference is ideal, I think.

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